Budget, Enron arenas for intense political warfare

January 25, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Congress has only just returned to work, but it's abundantly clear that it's in for a poisonous political session comparable to the venom of the Clinton impeachment days. On two fronts -- the budget war and the Enron scandal -- the opening shots have already been fired.

Both the White House and the Congressional Budget Office say there will be a federal deficit this year after earlier rosy predictions of continuing surpluses. Listen to what Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan had to say about that: "The top 1 or 2 percent of the public will get major tax cuts paid for by the retirement earnings of Social Security and Medicare by the majority of Americans."

In other words, according to Ms. Stabenow, President Bush's $1.35 trillion tax cut over 10 years, with well-off Americans the chief beneficiaries, is responsible for the predicted deficit and will have to be compensated for by digging into the supposedly sacrosanct elderly-care funds.

It's the same lament the Democrats made most of last year, perhaps not quite so succinctly. But now they have the projections of both the Bush administration and the CBO to add credibility to their contention.

The administration's budget director, Mitchell Daniels, says budget estimates are notoriously unreliable and that the latest are "this year's wild cards." The CBO itself says the Bush tax cuts will account for only $38 billion of the deficit, but adds that they will mean $380 billion more in extra interest payments on the federal debt.

The CBO figures indicate that without last year's tax cuts the new budget would run a slight surplus. But the White House figures blame the deficit on the economic downturn, the war on terrorism and anticipated new spending for defense and homeland security.

In the whirl of guesstimates that makes it possible to argue either way, one safe prediction can be made: The nearly evenly balanced Congress, by party, will spend much of the coming congressional election year locked in a blame game over who and what is responsible for the vanishing surplus of the Clinton era.

On the Enron front, the early perception was that the giant energy conglomerate's collapse was a corporate rather than a political scandal. Cited was the cooking of books on a grand scale and lucrative double dipping by auditors examining the baked volumes and consulting for the firm at the same time.

But if congressional Democrats have anything to say about it, and they will as chairmen of several Senate committee investigations, the Bush administration is going to be under political attack for what the Democrats already perceive as a too-cozy relationship among the president, other officials and Enron bigwigs.

The matter of campaign contributions to Mr. Bush and subordinates can be parried by many Democrats also having had their hands out for Enron's generosity in their own campaigns, including Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who will be conducting one of the Senate investigations.

The most politically sensitive aspect may be the question of Enron's input, real or imagined, into Vice President Dick Cheney's task force deliberations last winter about shaping administration energy policy. Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman of California is already crying fox-in-the-chicken-coop on that one, with the supposedly nonpartisan CBO demanding that Mr. Cheney lift the secrecy lid on who said what to whom at those task force meetings.

So far, the president has emphasized that his subordinates properly told Enron officials to take a hike when they approached them for help in their bankruptcy predicament. And he has joined the outcry in both parties against the Enron officials who cashed their own stock while telling employees everything was rosy, yet locked out thousands of them from cashing in what they held.

But with the Democrats breathing hard on Enron, it's not realistic to expect that they will let the perception rest that only corporate shenanigans are involved, not political connections. So the administration better buckle up for a rough ride, with the Democrats in Congress sharing the steering wheel.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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